I’ve caught huge tarpon, bonefish and permit, 50-pound king salmon on a spey rod, and five species of billfish on fly. But the one fish that has eluded me is a giant mahi-mahi on fly.
In the late ’70s, I caught a 38-pound mahi on fly in Cozumel, Mexico, while trying to catch sailfish. I’ve always wanted to hook a monster mahi weighing more than 50 pounds, but that’s not an easy task for two reasons: First, you have to find a 50-pound mahi, and second, you have to convince it to eat a fly. Both hurdles seem insurmountable, but after years on the water and lots of research, I’ve come up with a plan.
Two close friends of mine hold fly rod world records for mahi-mahi, which also are called dolphin or dorado. Stu Apte caught a 58-pounder on 12-pound tippet at Piñas Bay, Panama, and Rufus Wakeman landed the 16-pound tippet record with a 53-pound, 8-ounce fish off Isla Mujeres on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Donald Childress holds the 20-pound-tippet record with a 57-pound, 8-ounce mahi caught off Loreto, Mexico. The most attainable record of the three is probably Rufus’, though it has held since April 1990. Mahi records have been set in Florida, Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and even Senegal, but the greatest number were landed in Panama.
I’ve been fishing South Florida and the Keys for more than 50 years, and I’ve never seen a mahi weighing more than 40 pounds. The big, 20-plus-pound bulls are becoming more scarce every year. It’s difficult to find anything larger than “schoolie” size mahi here, and even those are unpredictable. Typically, you need to find some flotsam or a weedline, but the dolphin action has not been what it should be.
I’ve fished Isla Mujeres and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, and there are some whopper mahi there, but again, the really big ones are usually caught by anglers targeting other fish. The monsters don’t hang out in schools; they go rogue, swimming with a single mate at most. You could spend a lot of time looking for a mega mahi and never get a shot at one. There are plenty of fish in the 20- to 30-pound range, but the giants are capricious. Nevertheless, there is one spot where 40-pound mahi are considered pests, and brutes weighing more than 60 pounds are plentiful: Piñas Bay, Panama, home to Tropic Star Lodge.
Ten IGFA world records for mahi have been set fishing from Tropic Star, but as Rodney Dangerfield said, they just don’t get no respect. Two stories prove my point. Richard White, the fishing manager at Tropic Star, greets all of the boats when the come in each day. After asking one angler his standard, “How did you do?” he was surprised to hear, “We got skunked.” Evidently, getting skunked at Tropic Star means no marlin. But when White spoke to the captain, he learned that they had caught eight mahi over 50 pounds, not exactly my definition of skunked.
The second story involves a group of anglers who visited the lodge in November, when the mahi run was in full swing. Everyone fishing decided to have a one-day mahi tournament. Each angler put $100 in a pot that would go to the angler with the heaviest fish. They took this mini tournament seriously and put out nothing but mahi rigs to start the day. It wasn’t 30 minutes after lines in when one crew boated a giant mahi that was almost 6 feet long. The fish was so huge they decided to resume marlin fishing, assuming they had the prize in the bag. When they weighed their fish at the end of the day, it tipped the scales at 64½ pounds; they came in fourth. The winning fish weighed more than 70 pounds.
I’ve been to Tropic Star on several occasions, and we’ve always caught mahi in the 50-pound range, even though we never specifically targeted them. The lodge is known for blue and black marlin fishing. The standard bait is a live bonito or small tuna fished on 50-pound tackle. The boats also carry 30-pound outfits for sailfish, tuna, mahi and other smaller pelagics, but most of the serious baits go out on the 50s.
Bait can be difficult to find some days, and the boats’ tuna tubes usually hold six or eight fish, so each bait is precious. When fishing a bonito in the 8- to 12-pound range, the best size for a trophy marlin, an overaggressive mahi will attack and kill the bait even if it’s too big for the mahi to get the hook. And a chewed-up, dead bonito is useless. No one on the boat is more aware of this than the captain. He will spot the mahi’s impending attack and call out to the deckhand to reel in the baits as fast as possible to keep the bonito from getting whacked.
This happens all the time. A huge mahi will chase a bonito up to the transom, which is ideal for presenting a fly. However, it’s almost impossible to tease a mahi to the boat with a hookless teaser like you can with a billfish. The mahi will hit a teaser bait once or twice, then lose interest. But they never lose interest in a live bonito, especially if it’s too big for them to eat.
I typically don’t do much fishing when I’m at Tropic Star. I help out in the cockpit, do some rigging and catch bait, but mostly I’m on the camera, waiting for something to jump. I’m always with friends, and I arrange to have a heavy spinning rod rigged with a belly bait or popper that can be dropped back the instant the mahi show up. It’s pretty much an instant hookup, and fighting a mahi on a spinning rod is a lot more fun than a 50-wide marlin setup.
No one wants to troll a hookless teaser bait and watch a 600-pound black marlin rise up, eat it and swim off. That would bring tears to any angler’s eyes. I’ve discussed this with White, and we’ve come up with a plan. A boat looking for giant mahi on fly could slow-troll two live bonito rigged for marlin on the left side of the boat and leave the right outrigger up, as we usually do when offshore fly-fishing to make room to cast. The crew could rig a pitch bait for marlin, so no opportunities would be lost. Off the right side, we’d put out a live bonito between about 8 and 15 pounds — too big for even a 50-pound mahi to eat. A smaller bait would hook a smaller mahi, but we’re monster hunting.
Ideally, the mahi will attack the live bonito, and the mate will react as trained and reel the bait to the boat as quickly as possible. This will be nothing like the methodic teasing of a billfish — it’s going to be total chaos. The mate won’t be thinking about teasing the mahi to the boat as much as saving the marlin bait. For an IGFA-legal catch, the captain must put the engine in neutral once the monster mahi is behind the boat. Everything is going to unfold fast, and the burden to make it happen will fall on the angler with the fly rod, but I’m confident it can be done. For success, however, everyone has to sign off on the plan.
Anyone who has caught a 50-pound mahi knows the strength of these fish. The gear must be up to the task. I’d use the 14-weight fly rod I use for Pacific sailfish and marlin, along with my Nautilus Monster reel. Mason hard monofilament is the best leader/tippet material, and if you’re after a record, it pays to pretest the lines.
Flies are easier; use the biggest you can find. Poppers work, but a sinking fly is sometimes more effective to get below the prop wash after the boat is placed in neutral. Chris Lalli ties a giant billfish fly with a lead lip so it sinks quickly. This was particularly effective in the Galapagos Islands, where our boat was powered with three outboards that kicked up a lot of wash and obscured the poppers. I think the lip also gives the fly some action under water, but an enraged mahi is not going to quibble over action or pattern. It’s going to devour anything it sees.
I’m going to test this setup on my next trip to Panama, and I think it’ll work great. Fighting a giant mahi on fly, however, is another story.